Effective communication, online and off

Beyond the Textbook

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China Hill

You may find it hard to communicate face-to-face with many of today's teenagers. In one-on-one interactions, they have their cellphones nearby, waiting for that all-important Facebook post or text to come through. Although tech-savvy communication has broadened our ability to communicate with each other, it becomes a concern when children only communicate this way.

In their face-to-space interactions (texting, Tweeting, etc.), our children do not practice interpersonal skills, such as focusing on the speaker, listening attentively, and correctly perceiving social cues. Conversing with friends and family through invented spelling, peppered with exclamation marks, is no substitute for communicating your feelings to someone who shows genuine concern and understanding. Nevertheless, there are ways to enhance your children's interpersonal skills, giving them the keys to effective face-to-face interaction.

A 'tech-free' room

When children continually look at their phones, they don't develop social skills that only come from being social. Children acquire the social skill of "reading a room" when they enter an environment and identify if the room is loud and fun or quiet and serious. This allows children to form opinions about the behavioral expectations of places like grocery stores, churches or neighbors' homes. Children learn to adapt their behavior to the behaviors already in the environment. However, children who are focused on their technological devices (cellphones, iPods, etc.) rarely read a room, due to the conversations online or in their heads. Perhaps this is why many teenagers walk into a room without speaking or ride public transportation while speaking in an "outside" voice on their cellular devices.

In order to help children develop these social rules of engagement, make one room in your home a place where communication is strictly face-to-face. In this room, you and your children are not allowed to bring any mobile devices (cellphones, MP3 players, iPads, etc.). For example, if your kitchen is the no-tech zone, have family dinners there, focusing your attention on each other's body language and asking questions to find out about each other's day. Get your kids comfortable with staying present - both body and mind. Then see how much you learn about one another without the distraction of text messages and posts.

Dramatize text conversations

Today's youth have mastered the art of storytelling through text. They share abbreviated stories of both pain and joy using only 160 characters. Although many of your children might believe that they have captured and received the true essence of a message through text, show them what they are missing by having them reenact their text conversations with a friend. Have your child identify a text conversation on his or her phone of about 20 different messages. Then have your child and a friend re-enact the conversation. Allow them to speak and/or perform the actual words instead of abbreviated messages like TTYL (talk to you later) and LOL (laugh out loud). Re-enacting the script will allow them to see how words are felt as they are expressed.

Your child might find that his friend's "congrats" was more heartfelt when spoken while smiling and that laughing out loud after each of his friend's jokes feels insincere.

Use video chat

Teach your child to speak with more than just his or her fingers by utilizing video chats. One of the most popular is Skype, free video chat software that allows users to talk with friends and family while watching them onscreen, George Jetson-style. Although Skype is a tech-savvy way of communicating, it allows your children to utilize nonverbal skills that are lost on texting and instant messaging. Attentive listening skills, such as nodding to show you understand and smiling, can be given and received through video chat.

Meet your child online in order to enhance these nonverbal skills in their daily interactions. Of course, you can perform this activity with your child without Skype, but using Skype is a way for you and your child to use technology while still enhancing their interpersonal skills.

It is important for you and your children to keep up with the times. But remember to keep your children in the know about what technology has yet to offer.

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